Staff visits to Bristol Museum and BECC

Lucy Allen, Archive Assistant at the Theatre Collection, discusses two recent professional visits to Bristol heritage institutions.

In the four months since Joanna Gauld and I have joined the team as Archive Assistants, we have already been extremely lucky to be invited on two visits: the first, to the Conservation Department of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and the second, to the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection (BECC) at Bristol Archives.

Conservation at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

In December we were kindly invited by Eleanor Hasler, paper conservator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, to a tour of the museum’s conservation department. This was a fascinating insight into the world of conservation, as we visited labs dedicated to objects, paintings and paper conservation, and were able to peek at the projects underway in each.

Of particular interest was a project to conserve an enormous album of building plans belonging to Bristol Archives – one of more than 300 in the collection – dating from 1911-1912. The album included plans for many well-known Bristol buildings, among them plans for the Bristol Hippodrome designed by Frank Matcham. We listened to a talk from Aina Berenguer, the conservator who had been working on the project, explaining the four months of work she had put into the project – documenting, cleaning, flattening and repairing the plans.

Aina Berenguer, the conservator of the building plans. Photograph credit: Daly, R., 2023, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Other highlights we saw were a number of Japanese woodcut prints, with Eleanor Hasler providing some insight into the creation of these artworks, their historical context and how they came to be at the museum. Eleanor explained how at the time of production, the durability of the woodcuts meant they could be reused to make countless cheap prints. These now highly valuable prints were once worth about the same as a bowl of rice!

A final treat was a trip down to the art store beneath the museum, where we witnessed the hundreds of paintings, sculptures and other artworks held there by the museum when they are not on display. It was fascinating to how the museum ensures that these artworks are stored responsibly, and protects them for a future date when they will be brought back into the public eye.

British Empire and Commonwealth Collection

Our second trip followed in early February, when alongside colleagues from Special Collections, we were invited by archivist Jayne Pucknell to visit the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives.

Jayne explained the background to the collection, and how it came to be held by Bristol Archives after the closure of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2008. She had selected a few key items from the collection for us to view, and explained to us the history behind these pieces. These included a selection of photographs taken by J A Green (Jonathan Adagogo Green), born in the late 19th century and believed to be the first professional photographer of Nigerian birth. Jayne pointed out Green’s strategic use of initials in his business proceedings, which obscured his Nigerian identity and played a large part in his ability to work with both colonial and indigenous clientele.

Palm nut cracking, New Calabar by J. A. Green, c.1900 (ref: 2003/174/1/24). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

Whilst the J. A. Green photographs are an invaluable insight into life in colonial Nigeria from an indigenous perspective, many items in the collection depict life from the standpoint of the coloniser. For example, we also saw a late 19th century album of photos taken by a plantation owner in Jamaica. Many of these photographs depicted local Jamaicans in posed scenes, and often drew upon reductive stereotypes in order to appeal to a colonial audience.

Eight boys in a field eating watermelons, c.1860 (ref: 2005/001/151/1). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

We also viewed a 20th century album of paintings by a woman living in a Prisoner of War camp under Japanese rule in China. These scenes gave the misleading impression of a pleasant environment and of positive relationships between prisoners and guards. The reason for this became clear to us when Jayne pointed out that, had the paintings instead depicted the harsh realities of prisoner life, they would undoubtedly have been confiscated. Photography within the camp was forbidden; sketching and painting were the only options available to record the experience, even if they must be done from a falsely cheery perspective. One sketch, depicting a guard from the camp, hinted at the harsher reality, reading: “pestered me to do his portrait, was advised to do so less something bad might happen to me”.

Final thoughts

These visits were both wonderful experiences as they allowed us to gain insight into the collections, work environments and roles of our colleagues within the heritage industry. It’s always such a treat to see “behind the scenes” and to hear about collections directly from the people who work so closely with them. We are extremely thankful to Eleanor Hasler, Jayne Pucknell, and the teams at Bristol Museums and Bristol Archives for generously inviting us to visit their sites and engage with their collections.

Firestarters project update: March 2023

In 2021, the Theatre Collection successfully applied for a Research Resources Award from the Wellcome Trust for the ‘Firestarters’ project to make available the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI). The project was developed in response to demand to explore WSI’s innovative methodologies from a broad spectrum of researchers and practitioners and the archive will provide evidence and inspiration for future research and practice.

Founded in 1968 by John Fox and Sue Gill, Roger Coleman and others, WSI was a loose association of freelance artists brought together by shared values and philosophy.  WSI evolved from radical travelling performers to become embedded community artists and celebrants, working to weave art more fully into the fabric of life.  Under the Welfare State umbrella, a remarkable group of engineers, musicians, sculptors, performers, poets and pyrotechnicians invented and developed site-specific theatre in landscape, lantern processions, spectacular fireshows, community carnivals and participatory festivals.  The scale of the archive means that the project will take over three years to complete.  A comprehensive archive catalogue will be published online, key material will be digitised for preservation and access, and conservation work will ensure the long-term survival of this important collection.

The ‘Firestarters’ project to catalogue and make accessible the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI) is now underway, so we thought we’d share a project update and highlight some of the work we’ve done so far.  This first part of the project has focussed on establishing physical and intellectual control of the collection as well as safeguarding the long-term viability of the AV material through conservation and digitisation.


As Project Archivist, I’ve undertaken background research and produced a full production list of more than 400 performances, events and projects for the period Welfare State International were operational to assist with the sorting process.  The first sort of 245 boxes has been completed and the second, more detailed, sort is underway with all performance-related material from the original accession now sorted by production. I assigned temporary reference numbers to all the AV material enabling digitisation to begin.

Metal film canister from WSI archive labelled with white tape that reads 'Ballad of Jimi Tunn' Welfare State Intl
Example of WSI film canister

AV digitisation

Since December 2022, Nigel Bryant, AV Digitisation Officer has digitised 146 magnetic and optical media items across 17 different formats including U-matic, VHS, Betacam, Hi8, Video 8, CD audio and DVD.  Both preservation archival quality copies and viewing copies have been produced. Digital copies of duplicate material have been identified and discarded and summary content descriptions of all digitised AV have been recorded.  Essential servicing of AV equipment also took place across several formats to ensure optimum quality of digital copies was maintained.

Video highlights have included a copy of the Barrow community film ‘King Real & The Hoodlums’ (1984) from 1” video tape, so very good quality.  The film was made for TV and involved 150 local people; script by Adrian Mitchell based on King Lear.  In addition to the film, there is also a recording of ‘King Real – making of’ feature from BBC Newsnight, which includes interviews with cast members from the local community.  This year is the 40th anniversary of the making of ‘King Real’, an occasion which has been marked by some of those involved in the film from WSI and the local community with a celebratory singalong in Barrow.

There are also recordings of other TV programmes featuring the work of WSI including the BBC2 programme Open Space with footage of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Belfast’ from a community residency in Belfast, June 1983, and the Thames TV programme Afternoon Plus featuring preparations for ‘Parliament in Flames’, interviews with WSI members, as well as audience reactions to the large-scale spectacle.  In addition to recordings of performances, there is extensive coverage of Ulverston Lantern Processions from the 1980s-1990s.

Footage of international projects includes rushes and an edit of a WSI performance ‘The Wasteland and the Wagtail’, a special commission for the 1st International Theatre Festival in Toga Village, Japan from July 1982, a complete set of high quality rushes from ‘False Creek: A Visual Symphony’ from World Expo ‘86, in Vancouver, Canada, footage of a performance of ‘The Dead Carpenter’ at Rotterdamse Kunststichting, The Netherlands in 1976, and rushes and edit of ‘Tempest on Snake Island’ for the Toronto Theatre Festival in May 1981.

Manual Film Inspections

In preparation for creating access copies for the cine film within the collection, Nigel and I have undertaken manual film inspections for all 152 16mm films, in addition to 7 Super 8mm films.  Before undertaking manual film inspections, I tested all the film for acetate film base degradation (vinegar syndrome), using A-D strips.  The small A-D strips are placed in the can and left for a specified amount of time depending on the storage conditions; the strips change colour to indicate the level of deterioration.

Manually inspecting each film is essential, so an assessment can be made about whether the film would be safe to run on a Steenbeck (flatbed film editing machine) to create access copies.  The inspection included identifying the film type and any edge codes to date the film, as well as measuring the film and core diameter to ensure appropriate storage.  A section of film was measured and compared to stock film to assess whether the storage conditions over the years had caused the film to stretch or shrink.

As the image below shows, the film was then manually wound onto a core, through a duration counter and viewer, so the film could be viewed, notes about the content recorded, and an estimated duration taken.  The film was also lightly cleaned during this process.  With manual film inspections, although possible to view the moving images, it is not possible to listen to any sound recordings, which makes the content more difficult to identify.

Man manually winding 16mm film from reel onto core
Nigel Bryant, AV Digitisation Officer manually winding film from a reel onto a core
16mm film passing through a duration counter and film viewer
16mm film viewer and counter

The majority of the films within the collection were stored on 2” cores or projection reels, so during the inspections all the films were wound onto the larger 3” cores for optimum storage.  Each film was assessed for physical damage including scratches, perforation damage, mould, dirt and oil, warpage and colour fading.  Splices were also inspected and repaired or reinforced where required.

Within the collection there are a few 8mm and 35mm films, which will be inspected once additional equipment can be sourced.  As can be the case with older formats, the equipment required to play or view them is often scarce and therefore can be expensive.

There’s been some great footage on the 16mm film, including some projects filmed for TV, one for the arts programme Aquarius with footage from a 3 week residency in Burnley in 1975 including the final show featuring a large procession and ice sculpture, a 1982 performance of ‘Doomsday Fair’ and an early performance from 1973 made in Rotterdam.

Still from 16mm film of man with black and white makeup wearing black google and red military style jacket
Still from 1972 WSI performance seen through 16mm film viewer

There is also some footage of a naming ceremony on Bodmin Moor from the early 1970s and the South West tour of ‘The Travels of Lancelot Quail’ from 1972, which was one month of processional theatre from Glastonbury through Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.  The footage includes the finale of the performance, as the group of performers climb aboard a boat on the beach at Marazion and head out to sea and board a submarine.  It’s been brilliant to see moving images of performances, having only seen a few photographic images whilst sorting the documentation.

We look forward to posting more project updates as we go!

Siân Williams, Project Archivist

Miniature Stage Lighting demonstration

In January 2023, Keith McLaren, the depositor of the Miniature Stage Lighting visited the Theatre Collection to show us how the Miniature Stage Lighting worked and to give an insight into how the equipment could be used.

The Miniature Stage Lighting was deposited in October 2022 and has been catalogued as BTC334 Miniature Stage Lighting. It is equipment designed and made by Robert Stanbury who taught stage lighting to theatre design students at the Wimbledon College of Art in the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. He also made equipment for people including the eminent lighting designers Michael Northen and Richard Pilbrow and companies such as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. This particular equipment was ordered by Rae Hammond who was General Manager of the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham and is generally for use with 1:24 theatre design models although the equipment is larger for practical reasons. The lighting includes a control desk and several luminaires.

I worked with a colleague who took photographs of the individual parts and the process of setting them up for use. I took notes of the steps and advice, and I am creating a guide for future staff to use the equipment. We hope that our work will enable future generations to access and use the Miniature Stage Lighting in an informed way.

The process included building the stand, connecting the control desk to the mains, and connecting the luminaires to the control desk. Trial and error were needed such as to find out which lamp was connected to which dial on the control desk and the depositor gave us advice about common problems. Some of these included wires touching the body of the lamp and dirty contacts (the parts on the control desk used to assign a lamp to the left or right control dial).

I originally invited Keith to the session thinking that we would light a set model. However, he said he found this idea interesting because you don’t generally aim to light the set directly, apart from possibly motivating light (sunlight, moonlight etc.), rather relying on incidental “bounce light” from actor light. We ran out of time anyway!

The Theatre Collection also holds other items relating to lighting including collections such as BTC 155 Michael Northern Collection. Michael Northen (1921 – 2001) was the first credited Lighting Designer in the UK and his work on “The Mousetrap” can still be seen in the West End today. The JD Joe Davis Archive contains the archive of Lighting Designer Joe Davis (1912 – 1984). There is also a Mander & Mitchenson Collection reference box for lighting & sound. In addition, individual items such as lighting plots, plans and diagrams can be found within many of the other collections held at the Theatre Collection and there is a lighting section in the Theatre Collection library.

If you have archives relating to lighting (or any other aspect of professional British theatre or live art) that you would be interested in donating, please have a look at our ‘finding a home for your records’ page. You may also be interested in finding out more about caring for your records.

If you are interested in finding out more about theatre lighting, then please have a look at our catalogue and read more about visiting us.

Keith turning a dial on the lighting control desk
Keith with the Miniature Stage Lighting. Copyright: University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Starting with 3D Data: A 3D Data Book Sprint

When Ian’s Smith archive was donated to the Theatre Collection (TC) in 2020, it arrived with laser scans of his studio captured in 2018-19.  Ian’s studio was much more than a place of work.  It was like an artwork in itself that reflected Ian’s practices and artistic concerns, the interior including Ian’s collections of books, LPs, model toys and furniture, all carefully arranged and displayed.  Ian died in 2014, but it had felt important to create a record of this space to put with his archive. 

Artist's studio space
Ian Smith’s studio photographed by Malcolm Brown

It was the first accession at the TC to include these types of digital files and it really started us thinking about 3D data and asking questions about how we preserve and facilitate access to these files.  Since then, we have also started to 3D capture objects within our collections, raising even more questions and queries about the data produced at the point of capture. 

Thanks to The National Archives Archive Testbed Fund, we held a three day event using the ‘book sprint’ format to explore some of the questions that we have surrounding 3D data capture and preservation, using Ian’s studio as our case study.  The idea of a ‘book sprint’ is to produce a collaborative piece of writing in a short period of time and in our case, we wanted to produce a basic in-house guidance document (Starting with 3D Data) that would help us develop principles, workflows and procedures for managing 3D data. We wanted to share this guidance with the wider archive community, as we hope it will provide a starting point for non-specialised archive services, who, like us at the TC, are meeting the challenges of managing 3D data for the first time. 

We gathered a group of people together to take part with a variety of different expertise and experience in 3D data capture and preservation including: 

  • Sam Brenton, Digital Archives Assistant, University of Bristol
  • Malcolm Brown, Deputy Photographer, Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service, University of Edinburgh (created the 3D scans of Ian Smith’s studio in a freelance capacity)
  • Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Digitisation Officer, University of Bristol Theatre Collection
  • Catherine Dack, Research Support Librarian, University of Bristol
  • Angie Dight, Director and Co-founder of Mischief La-Bas, wife of the artist Ian Smith whose studio was scanned in 3D
  • Stephen Gray, Head of Research Support, Library Services University of Bristol
  • Emma Hancox, Digital Archivist, University of Bristol
  • Kieron Niven, Digital Archivist, Archaeology Data Service, University of York
  • Sean Rippington, Digital Archives and Copyright Manager, University of St Andrews
  • Julian Warren, Keeper: Digital and Live Art Archives University of Bristol Theatre Collection
  • Sian Williams, Project Archivist: Ian Smith Archive, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

This blog focuses on the three key discussion areas we addressed each of the three days of the sprint that helped us develop our 3D data guidance document, Starting with 3D Data

Day 1: Data Creation

As Ian’s studio was our case study, we asked Angie to introduce us to his studio and guide us around the space with the photographs that were captured by Malcolm in 2018-19.

Angie talking through images of Ian's studio on the screen
Angie talking us through Ian’s studio

Ian Smith (1959-2014) was an artist, performer and artistic director, founding the acclaimed Glasgow-based performance company, Mischief La-Bas, with his wife, Angie in 1992.  As Angie explained, Ian, as a child of the 1950s and influenced by his older brother, loved 50s pop culture, was captivated by David Bowie and saw no divide between high art and low art.  His studio, ‘The Den’ was his thinking and ideas place, and it really encapsulated his eclectic collecting and creativity.  His artistic creations, known as ‘Pulptures’, described by Ian as ‘like sculptures but not as good’ adorn the walls and models of characters from film and TV, including his own bastardised creations, line the shelves.      

Ian’s studio became the springboard for our all discussions, but in terms of data creation it helped us to address the fundamental questions: 

Why capture in 3D?  In terms of Ian’s studio, it was part of the WASP Artist Collective of studio spaces in Glasgow, so it would not have been possible to preserve his studio in situ in perpetuity.  As described by Malcolm, the studio was like “stepping inside someone’s head”, as it really captured Ian’s personality and creativity.  As Malcolm recognised at the time, there was a compelling case for not only capturing the space in 2D, but also to experiment with 3D capture.  Although 2D can capture detail, laser scanning presents the possibility of capturing the space as a whole, its scale and relationships between objects. 

As with Ian’s studio, Malcolm recognised the value of capturing the studio in 3D, but it was agreed there should always be a criteria for 3D capture. In terms of preservation, there is limited argument for scanning robust objects.  Items should be prioritised for scanning based on a preservation need i.e. objects made inherently of material that degrades quickly and therefore require minimal handling or spaces/objects which may no longer exist.  At the TC we hold many set models, which were only ever made with the intention of being temporary.  The models are particularly vulnerable to damage with multiple and often fragile moving parts, but are high-use objects by researchers and teaching groups.  In these cases, there is a clear need to 3D capture and create a digital surrogate, as 3D models can be manipulated in ways the original set model cannot be due to risk of damage. 

How do you capture 3D?  Ian’s studio was captured by LiDAR or laser scanning, which uses light waves to calculate distance and is often used for larger spaces.  We explored other methods of 3D capture including photogrammetry, structured light and a hybrid version of both, as well as the challenges of each and different considerations depending on the method of capture, including cost implications and equipment requirements. 

Day 2: File Formats and Metadata

To ascertain what file formats we should be requesting at the point of deposit and what metadata should be captured and recorded, we heard from those in the group with experience of 3D capture, so we could understand the process in more detail.  Using worked examples, we looked at photogrammetry with 3D models of objects including set models.  We explored the challenges at point of capture i.e. difficulties with using a green screen and white objects on white background, what files to keep (DNG, TIFF) and creating a mesh to produce a 3D model.   

Group looking at worked examples
Book sprint discussions

Ian’s studio was LiDAR scanned to experiment capturing the space beyond 2D, but it was not processed at the time into a usable 3D model.  In terms of future deposits, it would be more likely that the depositor would produce a 3D model as the final product, as this would be the primary aim of capturing the space/object.  We are currently experimenting with the files of Ian’s studio to see if we can produce a workable model, and you can see how far we’ve got on Sketchfab.

What file formats and metadata should we have asked for at the point of deposit?  In archival terms, we want to preserve the raw data with minimal intervention at the point of capture.  But as our discussions highlighted, there is difficulty in this with 3D capture in terms of what is considered the raw data, as there is a lot of process involved in capturing and creating usable models.  In order to access the data it requires a process to create a model by creating a mesh.  This often requires the use of proprietary software.  We would therefore want to ask the depositor for their raw files (whatever they might consider that to be), as well as an access copy of the finished 3D model that the depositor is happy with i.e. a meshed OBJ file. 

In terms of metadata, it was helpful to hear about the Archaeology Data Service, and what we can learn from archaeologists, who regularly capture 3D data. The Archaeology Data Service already has a set of principles in terms of what metadata is requested from the depositor, which will help to develop our own set of principles.  We started to consider what questions we should have asked for at the point of deposit of Ian’s studio scans, such as:

  • Reason for capture and additional context 
  • What type of device was used
  • What software was used
  • Copyright holder information i.e. person who has made the decisions in the scanning process, as well as the objects that are included in the scans
  • Image of the equipment setup and colour capture
  • Accurate measurements of the space/object
  • Location where scan taken 
  • Number of points of capture
  • Capture date 
  • How many scans within the model
  • How the files are structured and arranged

Day 3: Audiences and Access

With such innovative potential for 3D data, we discussed our audiences and how we could make the 3D data accessible to them.

Currently the TC is introducing the digital preservation platform, Preservica, but due to early development and lack of demand for a 3D viewer on the platform, its viewer remains fairly rudimentary at the moment.  We therefore discussed the need to use a temporary platform to access the 3D models in the meantime.  However, in using these platforms such as Sketchfab and 3DHOP, there are of course cost implications, as well as considerations with ownership and licensing in addition to the increased amount of time and resources required for the processing to produce accessible 3D models.  Using these platforms could potentially drive more traffic to our catalogue, but in using multiple platforms to making our digital models accessible this way we would need to ensure that the relationship with the catalogue is maintained.  As always with archives, we are thinking about the future and whether these platforms will exist or be usable in the long term, reinforcing the archival reasons for preserving the raw data.

These discussions that took place over the book sprint event have fed into our guidance document for the TC.  We will use this document as a reference point as we start to build our procedures and workflows for dealing with 3D data.  Just as Ian’s studio encouraged us to start exploring 3D data, we hope our guidance document may be a useful starting point for any non-specialised archive service looking to explore 3D data capture and preservation.    

‘Records at Risk’ – what does that mean?

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist:

As highlighted in my previous blog post, the Records at Risk project has an important advocacy role to raise awareness of records and archives and the research value of industry professionals’ records.  We want to reach those currently working in the theatre industry and get professionals thinking about their records now.  We recently held an online seminar in collaboration with the ABTT about Caring for your Records. You can watch a recording of the seminar here:

But to really ensure the project has a wide reach, we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use the phrase ‘Records at Risk’.

What are records?

Records are documents created or accumulated in the course of your day-to-day activities.  The records we generate in daily life or business can take any form, including paper documents, photographs, sound and video recordings and digital files.

Records are created by individuals and organisations, both public and private.  And records are active, meaning they are in current use and are needed to carry on activities, from train tickets and pay slips to rent agreements and music playlists.

In your professional life, records are the material that you create and accumulate in order to do your job.  For example, a theatre designer’s records could include original designs, fabric swatches, research papers and photographs, technical drawings and plans, correspondence and production photographs, in addition to personal administrative records such as financial papers and contracts.

When no longer in active use, these records can be selected for long-term preservation as an archival collection, providing a window to the past for future generations.

What can cause records to be put at risk?

Records can be placed at risk due to a myriad of factors.  For example, records can often be at risk of loss when companies go into administration or liquidation.  During such a challenging time, the company’s records are not the priority and insolvency practitioners may not have an awareness of the historical value of the company’s archive.  The Crisis Management Team for Business Archives make great efforts to ensure these business records at risk of loss are preserved for the future.

If funding streams are cut off, this can cause performance venues or companies to close very quickly and at incredibly short notice.  Physical spaces might change hands or be sold and the organisational records can be thrown away during this handover. In the case of the greenroom archive in Manchester, we had to act quickly when funding streams changed and the performance space had to close at short notice in 2011. greenroom started as a peripatetic organisation in 1983, eventually establishing a permanent venue under two railway arches in 1987, becoming Manchester’s centre for new, experimental and contemporary performance.  This archive is now held in the Live Art Archives of the Theatre Collection and captures the administrative and performance history of the company.

Particularly under threat are the records of peripatetic performance companies who may not have a permanent physical space to store their records. If records are kept at home by individual members of the company they can be lost over time with changes in personnel.

Records might also be at risk of physical damage or loss due to environmental factors, such as flooding or fire or due to inappropriate storage conditions.  We’ve put together this short video with a basic overview of how to look after your records, which should keep them in good shape and slow deterioration:

Audio and audiovisual material on obsolete formats is also at risk.  Film or magnetic media, such as VHS, Betamax and U-matic tapes need to be prioritised for digitisation due to degradation and the limited life of the original tapes or reels.  Similarly, material saved on optical media, such as CD-R and DVD-R, should be transferred to a more stable storage media as soon as possible as they also degrade very quickly.  Once the material has been saved onto more stable storage media or digitised, the digital files need to be managed so they can be accessed in the future.  We’ve put together this short video to help those starting to manage their personal digital files:

By Sian Williams, Project Archivist

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages:–live-art-records/


Theatre & Live Art Records at Risk due to COVID-19

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist:

With the Theatre and Live Art Records at Risk project well underway, our Project Archivist, Sian Williams reflects on the project so far and the conversations we’ve had with funding bodies, organisations within the theatre sector and other collecting institutions.

The theatre sector has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.  The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt and are still not fully realised, but it is clear that this period will have a lasting impact on the industry.

The Cultural Recovery Fund and furlough scheme have only recently come to an end, and there continue to be uncertainties over future additional financial support.  As well as ongoing restrictions, there are other issues to contend with, including audience confidence, reduced performances, whether group bookings will be revived, insurance costs and cover for COVID disruption, and what audiences want to see during and following these challenging times.  There are many factors that will affect recovery and whether or not the theatre industry can and even should be returning to pre-pandemic models.

During the pandemic, there were conversations within the industry about how the theatre sector was going to recover and ‘build back better’.  The voice of the freelance workforce was more loudly heard with the formation of Freelancers Make Theatre Work and their subsequent Big Freelancer Report highlighting the ‘inequities deep rooted throughout the industry’.  The desperate situation many freelancers found themselves in during the pandemic shone a spotlight not only on the immediate need for financial assistance, but the need to confront and remedy the core problems faced by the freelancer workforce that were growing long before the pandemic.  As the Big Freelancer Report states, ‘for freelancers in the performing arts, COVID-19 has acted as a force multiplier on an employment system that was already under strain… The theatre workforce do not want to return to an already broken system, therefore the income crisis need to be addressed’ (2021, p.129).  With the ESRC-funded Freelancers in the Dark research project soon to be published, which investigated the social, cultural, and economic consequences of COVID19 on independent arts workers across the UK, it can hopefully help to inform plans to support the sector as it rebuilds.

It seems that the pandemic was not exclusively the reason, but an accelerating factor forcing some theatres to permanently close and some professionals to leave the industry.  The financial impact of the pandemic meant theatres that were already facing financial insecurity closed or transferred ownership.  But the pandemic also offered the opportunity – or forced people – to re-evaluate their situations.  People reconsidered the hours they worked, their working conditions and their worth.

Over 70% of the theatre workforce are freelancers, and many were unable to claim financial assistance from emergency funding or financial schemes during the pandemic.  It is not known how many people have already left the industry due to financial insecurity or if they plan to return.  The film and TV industry was able to restart production much sooner than the theatre industry, offering some freelancers the opportunity to return to work.  But what impact will this have long-term?  Now theatres have reopened, there are reports of a ‘hiring crisis’, with productions unable to fill vacancies.  A recent article highlighted that it is roles requiring skills transferable to other industries which are proving difficult to fill.

Many of the problems that were once backstage and less apparent to audiences have now been revealed and brought to the foreground.  For the Theatre Collection, this project has highlighted how important it is for us, as a collecting institution of theatre and live art material, to understand the theatre industry in the present, so that we can better prepare for sustainable collecting in the future and try to prevent the loss of vulnerable collections that are vital to the cultural history of Britain.  As a collecting institution that has seen an increase in donations of archival material since the start of the pandemic, we must plan for potential donations, but also raise awareness of the Theatre Collection and other collecting institutions within the industry, so we can provide support and advice to those currently looking after their own records.

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages:–live-art-records/